Part 1: THE PICTURE BOOKS
Elaine Moss introduces a new five-part series
‘I ought to know,’ said a parent governor at the Christmas party, ‘but what do you actually do in this school?’ It became clear that she thought ordering and covering and counting books were a librarian’s main occupation; and it was with pleasure that she discovered that helping children in a Primary School to enjoy books took precedence over tasks that only existed in order to facilitate that aim. When I mentioned that I also introduced books, new and old, to teachers she was clearly amazed: ‘Surely teachers already know all there is to know about children’s books.’
I do not think that parent governor is alone in her cloud cuckoo land; neither do I consider it wise to undermine parents’ belief in teachers’ skills. But if parents, as well as their children, look to teachers for advice and help in the field of children’s books, then every Primary School teacher should surely have a personal ‘kit’ of books as the base from which to operate with enthusiasm.
It is to this end that my 1982 series of five articles for Books for Keeps is directed. Obviously there are some books that ‘are’ top Junior, other that ‘look right’ for Infants. But in selecting fifty books, a tiny number, that every Primary School teacher should know and – yes – own, I shall try to find those whose appeal is wide, books that, with confidence and imagination on the part of the teacher, can be used up and down the Primary School. Strangely, paradoxically when one considers the mass media philosophy of low artistic level-wide appeal, with books it is the best in literary and artistic terms that have the magic that enthralls children of different ages, varying backgrounds. I am assuming, of course, that teachers read to and with their classes, as well as encouraging children to read to themselves.
The scheme for the series is as follows:
1. Picture Books
2. Learning and Listening
3. First Fling and Classics of Childhood
5. Poetry and Traditional Tales.
Ten picture books! Picture books are a passion with me. I carry loads about when I go to talk with teachers; my canvas bag is full of them when I go into schools. Which ten should I choose for the Lifeline Library? I look at my shelves and discover that I must have over a thousand to choose from. Each seems to have a voice, an image. Ten only shall I allow myself – because the worst sin we book buffs indulge in is overkill.
So, I choose only one by each outstanding illustrator, confident that having bought one you will be spurred on to look at others … And I select from each illustrator the less sophisticated type of picture book because this has the widest appeal. (The more sophisticated picture books have found a place in my Signal Bookguide, Picture Books for Young People 9 – 13 reviewed in the last issue of Books for Keeps.)
I choose Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
because it combines simplicity of style with an irresistible invitation to the reader to join in the treasure hunt, meeting famous folk tale and nursery rhyme characters along the trail. ‘Each peach pear plum/I spy Tom Thumb’ runs the rhyming text – and in the picture of an orchard opposite, spy Tom Thumb up a peach tree. Because of the superb planning, each page a cliff hanger leading on to the next, readers are drawn stage by stage towards ‘Plum pie in the sun/I spy… (turn over) EVERYONE’.
Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake
was chosen because Quentin Blake’s delicious line in kinetic humorous cover drawing seems to say to children ‘this is a laugh’ before they even open the book to discover how right they are. Mr Magnolia ‘has an old trumpet that goes tooty-toot/And two lovely sisters who play on the flute/But Mr Magnolia has only one boot.’ Light-hearted nonsense tale with frolicking frogs, mincing mice, obtrusive owls in attendance, and some interesting rhymes – boot, fruit, flute, newt, for phonics freaks to consider.
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
won its place in the list against stiff opposition from other Briggs picture books because it is the one that has everything: brilliant use of strip cartoon technique, immensely detailed painting within each frame, a touching story (Father Christmas overworked on Christmas Eve delivering presents to all and sundry in snow, sleet, rain, fog), humorous thought bubbles (‘Good, the flag’s flying. They’re in,’ as the old man approaches Buckingham Palace) and a determination not to spoil the magic of Father Christmas for children.
Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham
is quite simply the picture book all young children should have read to them, and every older child should read alone. The text, set in large type, has pattern, a rising tempo, latent humour. ‘May I come please?’ asks the pig when he sees Mr Gumpy setting off in his boat. ‘Yes, if you don’t muck about’ is the reply. ‘Can we come, too?’ ask the chickens. ‘Yes, if you don’t flap.’ Perfect animal pictures. Punning text. Splashing climax!
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
chose itself. Hugely popular, wonderfully inventive, it quite casually introduces children to the life cycle of a butterfly, to counting and to the days of the week – as the hero eats his way through one apple on Monday, two pears on Tuesday… until hungry no more he enters the cocoon stage and emerges a butterfly. Holes in the pages ‘nibbled’ by the caterpillar make this a book you should buy in the hard-cover edition – which has tougher paper – if you can afford to. It will need to last.
I chose Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish by Michael Foreman because, like all this artist’s work, it is a thought-provoking picture story. Man with his rubbish has destroyed much that is good on Earth: the small-headed but large-hearted Dinosaurs who had great respect for their surroundings, reappear to remind him of some ‘home’ truths.
Millions of Cats by Wands Gag
tuned in exactly to my mood – for it is about an old man and an old woman who have to choose one cat from among ‘hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats – in the way I have to choose ten picture books from a multiplicity of enchanters. An enduring favourite (first published in 1929) it has pathos, simplicity, rhythm, repetition, resolution – and is a model of black and white picture book design.
Up and Up by Shirley Hughes
is a superb example of the textless picture book, a concept that was slow to grab teachers’ imagination when it first surfaced (in the 1950s) but is now recognized as immensely fruitful. Any child `reading’ Up and Up – a complex story told entirely in narrative two-colour strip – will have to concentrate hard, use intuition, find words to describe the experience of the heroine who, for a wonderful interlude, manages to fly round the town.
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins
is a big joke against the adult reader who, straightfaced (if wise, and willing), will read the 36 word text which tells the story of Rosie the hen’s walk `across the yard, around the pond… and back in time for dinner’ – whilst the young audience discovers, by looking at the pictures, that a fox is dogging Rosie’s heels and that she is tripping him up (knowingly?) at every stage. A brilliant first lesson in dramatic irony.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
is by no means the picture book that all adults love and every child enjoys but it is a work of genius that children have, by and large, taught their elders to appreciate. Poetic text, dream-like pictures accompany Max (sent to his room in disgrace for behaving like a `wild thing’) to the land Where the Wild Things (his passions) Are. He learns to master them, sails home in his `private boat’ to his room and his supper. `And it was still hot.’
That’s my ten.
How about writing to Books for Keeps about your favourite picture book that I have left out?
Each Peach Pear Plum
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Kestrel, 0 7226 5335 2, £4.50
Fontana Lions, 0 00 661678 X, 90p
Quentin Blake, Cape, 0 224 01612 1, £3.95
Fontana Lions, 0 00 661879 0, 90p
Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 02260 6, £3.50
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.125 8, £1.25
Mr Gumpy’s Outing
John Burningham, Cape, 0 224 61909 8, £3.95
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.254 8, 95p
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 01798 X. £3.95
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.087 1, £1.00
Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish
Michael Foreman, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 02234 7, £3.95
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.098 7. 95p
Millions of Cats
Wanda Gag, Faber, 0 571 05361 0, £2.25
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.168 1, 85p
Up and Up
Shirley Hughes, Bodley Head, 0 370 30179 X, £3.50
Fontana Lions, 0 00 661809 X, 90p
Pat Hutchins, Bodley Head, 0 370 00794 8, £3.50
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.032 4, 95p
Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak, Bodley Head, 0 370 00772 7, £3.95
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.031 6, £1.50
Elaine Moss was for ten years the compiler of the NBL’s Children’s Books of the Year (1970-1979). In 1977 she won the Eleanor Farjeon Award and is much in demand to talk and write about children and books in this country and abroad. For over five years she worked as a part-time librarian in Fleet Primary School in London. She compiles the Good Book Guide’s Young Readers Booklist, and is a regular contributor to Signal and Junior Education.
Picture Books for Young People 9-13 is available from The Thimble Press Lockwood, Station Road, South Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ. £1.65 including postage.